By Robert Strauss | February 24, 2014 | People
Ric Ramsey calls education a social equalizer and likens his mission to the civil rights movement.
Ric Ramsey was all set to, as he says, “live large” after graduating from Hampton University and NYU’s Stern School of Business and going into information technology consulting. But he and his wife were also working on another venture—securing a franchise from the Goddard School, a chain of private preschools—when he thought he would learn more by working at a nonprofit for a year.
Ten years later, the preschool and his consulting business were on permanent hold while Ramsey ran the LEAD program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, which provides talented students in business and engineering with mentoring and hands-on educational and service experience. While that was satisfying, he says, he couldn’t help recalling his own upbringing, as a poor kid in Colorado whose teachers gave him a chance to succeed—and whose mother insisted he could accomplish whatever he wanted.
When he heard that City Year was planning to refocus on keeping students in school, Ramsey signed on. “My world before was focused on the bright and talented,” he says. But while his job has changed, his goal has not. “I get to steer this ship as its captain, and this will be a phenomenal ride for me.” City Year Greater Philadelphia, 2221 Chestnut St., 215-988-2118
Danielle Mackintosh recognized immediately that the eighth grader was a little restive in his class at Overbrook’s Dimner Beeber Middle School. The West Philly school could be a rather chaotic place, and she knew she had to step in and help before his behavior got worse. One of 225 corps members of City Year Greater Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve city schools and aid the at-risk student population by hiring recent college graduates for one year of paid service, Mackintosh puts in long hours. She greets students as they arrive or calls them on their cell phones with a reminder to get to school on time. She assists with classroom instruction, providing one-on-one coaching or taking small groups aside to assist them with assignments. Sometimes, as with the eighth grader at Dimner Beeber, she forestalls a looming disciplinary problem.
“It was hard for him to just sit through class, let alone do the work,” says Mackintosh. “Because he was adapting to negative culture more than positive, it was difficult for us to show him what was appropriate.” But there was a quick fix: sit next to him for the entire class. For Philadelphia’s schools, unfortunately, there have been few easy solutions lately.
The local media never seems to run out of bad things to say about the city’s public schools. And in many cases it’s warranted—there has been plenty to criticize during Philly’s recent hard times. A persistent funding crisis resulted in a system that for years seemed to be held together with classroom glue sticks and papier-mâché. But in 2013 the dam finally burst, with mass layoffs followed by intermittent and disconcerting rehiring. Employees were often forced to do jobs they weren’t trained for just to keep the schools running. But there are people and organizations in Philadelphia that aren’t willing to sit idly by and watch the system collapse.
Ric Ramsey joined City Year, which has served more than 100,000 local kids since 1997, because he was convinced he could help stanch the hemorrhaging in the city’s schools. When the organization hired him last April to be its executive director and vice president, it described his mission as a new civil rights movement.
“The civil rights movement was about equality and being viable to society,” says Ramsey. “Education is the big definer globally. It says we will equalize your ability to give to society because you’ve been educated to what is needed in society. I’m fascinated with the concept that we can actually improve the education of our nation by focusing on those who are most vulnerable in our society.”
Keeping even the most disinterested, demotivated, and deprived kids focused on school is also an integral part of the mission of City Year, which holds its annual gala this spring. Winnowing its research findings, City Year has reduced its areas of concern to ABC: attendance, behavior, and course literacy. In each case, says Ramsey, mitigating the problem leads directly to a better chance at high school graduation.
Elaine Wynn calls Communities in Schools a “silver bullet” solution for the nation’s neediest schools.
Perhaps best known as one of the world’s few female billionaires, Elaine Wynn has served as director of Wynn Resorts since 2000, but these days the Las Vegas resident dedicates most of her time to philanthropic causes that support education. Since 2008, she has served as the national chairperson of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit organization that works with needy schools in 27 states and the District of Columbia.
Wynn travels frequently across the country to check in on Communities in Schools’ 1.25 million students. In Philly, the program works differently than in other regions, where “we’re gravitating more towards a site facilitator,” she says. In Philadelphia, “we have more-direct relationships with local organizations.”
It’s all about strengthening relationships to deliver the services and support that schools need most, Wynn adds. “Communities in Schools is a mechanism that leverages things that already exist in a community, that already are funded, that already have personnel, to deliver what they do more efficiently to kids who need it. And by layering on multiple surfaces, you’re improving that kid’s life exponentially. So if a kid needs clothes, glasses, and food, that child’s going to be 100 percent better off having been in Communities in Schools than if they hadn’t.” Communities in Schools of Philadelphia, 2000 Hamilton St., 267-386-4600
Most of the nation’s dropouts occur in 10 percent of its high schools, and students at Philadelphia’s struggling schools are among the most vulnerable. The first step in solving the problem, Ramsey explains, is simply getting the child to school: Curbing absenteeism remains a daily battle. Studies have shown that if a student in third through seventh grades misses 10 percent of school days, he or she is significantly likelier to eventually drop out.
As for behavioral problems, the kind of focused, caring intervention that City Year corps members like Mackintosh offer is crucial. By “engaging on a more personal level so the student trusts” the corps member, says Ramsey, “you’re preventing the poor behavior from igniting.”
Finally, what he calls “probably the most important” goal is keeping young people on pace to succeed in the core subjects of math and English. Again, failure here increases the dropout rate: According to Ramsey, City Year research shows that a student who fails two or more of these classes by grade nine is unlikely to graduate.
Preventing dropouts is a huge task, but City Year isn’t going it alone. Cooperation is essential, and Ramsey emphasizes that his organization works hand-in-hand with groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters, which offers mentorship programs for at-risk kids in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. PhillyGoes2College, part of the Mayor’s Office of Education, goes even further. Barbara Mattleman, who has headed the initiative since its inception in 2010, notes that getting students through secondary school is only the first step. To really get ahead, they need to go to college, and it should be the city’s aim to get as many students there as possible.
To achieve that, PhillyGoes2College alerts students and their parents about events that promote and prepare them for college, such as the huge college fair held each fall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and classes to help with College Board tests or application essays. PhillyGoes2College also teaches families how to apply for financial aid. Mattleman says the program c an be just the spark a young person needs: “In many cases, this is the first generation of the family to go to college, so this is now a way to start the conversation.”
Making life even more difficult for society’s most vulnerable is the fact that the spending cutbacks have the greatest impact on those who have the least, according to Elaine Wynn, president of the Nevada Board of Education and a board member of Communities in Schools of Philadelphia. “We know through research that the most challenged populations are those kids who are in poverty, unfortunately,” says Wynn. “They have unmet needs that are so basic that most people are shocked to learn that there are families that are hungry and [dealing with] substance and physical abuse.”
Communities in Schools was established in 1977 by Bill Milliken as a way to serve the urban poor and has grown into the largest stay-in-school network in the nation. In 1986, the organization landed in Philadelphia, where it currently serves 10,000 students, from kindergarten to postsecondary school. The program employs professionals, rather than relying on “near peers” as City Year does, and works with businesses, government, and other nonprofits to find mentors for schoolkids. The goal is to show them that there are jobs out there for them, provided they finish school.
“We have two kinds of services,” says Wynn. “One is more in-depth, where we work with schools to identify those kids who are most at risk of falling out and create individual plans around that child and his or her family. For the second, we go into a school and find out what they need help with. So if their art program was cut, then we could coordinate with a group like Philadanco, for example, that might have an outreach program. Communities in Schools would become the link to Philadanco and the school district and would create the conditions in which we could get that delivered and applied.”
The organization’s nearly 30 years of success is reflected in some impressive statistics. By the end of the 2012–13 academic year, for example, 94 percent of its students who were at risk of dropping out remained in school, and 65 percent of graduating seniors were either enrolled in a postsecondary school or employed.
Noah Tennant says that interaction between teachers and students is a key to success.
Noah Tennant grew up in Harrisburg and went to a small, if diverse, high school on the outskirts of town. His only connection to Philadelphia—a seemingly distant metropolis—was his love for 76ers star forward Charles Barkley. Intent on being a teacher, he attended the University of Delaware and then Penn’s Graduate School of Education. He took administrative jobs in New Jersey, in the elite towns of Westfield and Haddonfield, becoming the beloved principal of the middle school.
But while he was satisfied there, Tennant says a tour of Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia, an all-male high school that had opened just a couple of years before, began to change his mind. The neighborhood could not have been more different from Haddonfield: a poor-to-lower-class, mostly African-American urban environment versus an upper-middle-to-upper-class, primarily white suburb.
“There I was in West Philadelphia and seeing students on the top of a hill wearing blazers and ties,” Tennant says. “They had a vested interest in being a part of something challenging. They could have easily gone two or three blocks away to a high school where standards would not be as high for them. That they were choosing to do that, making the choice to do that—I felt inspired to be someone to help them on that journey.”
Inspiration can also be found among leaders in the trenches of the toughest city schools. Linda Cliatt-Wayman had moved up the chain of command from teacher to administrator to assistant superintendent for the city’s high schools. But in one of Philadelphia’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, she saw the need for on-the-ground help. Strawberry Mansion High School had lost four principals in four years, leaving this public school adrift, so she took on the challenge and in September 2012 became its principal.
Since then, Cliatt-Wayman has gotten more kids to graduate, and 55 of last year’s 92 graduates were accepted into college. After she and the school were profiled by ABC News, they found an unexpected champion in hip-hop star Drake, who was so moved by their story that he arranged to have a music studio built for the students at Strawberry Mansion. “I want to encourage you to utilize that facility and try to make whatever dreams you have come true,” he told them.
At November’s Pennsylvania Conference for Women, Cliatt-Wayman earned a standing ovation with her tear-filled speech about the struggling students she has guided at Strawberry Mansion and how—even amid seeming despair—there are triumphs waiting to happen. After being on the city’s list of schools to be closed two years ago, Strawberry Mansion has seen a 10 percent rise in enrollment. Credit that to Cliatt-Wayman’s stricter policies—like no hoodies or cell phones—and to expanded programs in cooking, filmmaking, and sports. Private donations have also funded new scholarships and curricula.
Noah Tennant could have easily avoided the challenges of city schools, having spent more than a decade as a school administrator in the upper-crust New Jersey towns of Westfield and Haddonfield. But one day, while visiting his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a colleague took him to see Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia, a new male-only charter high school in West Philly that had opened in 2007. Inspired by what he saw, Tennant left the suburbs in 2011 to become principal of Boys’ Latin.
According to Tennant, the achievement differences between elite schools and the average Philadelphia public school can be tied to the number of hours that students and teachers interact with each other and the closeness of that engagement. At Boys’ Latin, the school day runs from 8 am to 4 pm, with an hour of mandatory extracurricular activity or tutoring afterwards. Students also attend school every other Saturday from 9 am to noon, primarily for extra-classroom projects or remedial work. Everyone studies Latin for four years, with research showing that students who do so perform better on College Board tests than those who take four years of another language.
Although it mainly serves the West and Southwest Philadelphia areas, any student can apply to Boys’ Latin—there are no qualifying tests—but he has to be ready for more rigor, more schoolwork, more attention from teachers. In the three classes that have graduated so far, 98 percent of the students have been accepted into college and 81 percent have matriculated.
Tennant warns, however, that this school isn’t right for everyone. “We make it clear with our families that it is tough. In education research today, you hear the word ‘grit,’” he says, adding that most students who submit to the austerity of Boys’ Latin—which also has strict blazer-and-tie standards—have it. “There are kids who come to us with academic struggles and a discipline file, but those who make it keep grinding and trying. We hope to have a long era of success stories.”
Photography by Jeffrey Stockbridge; Evan Sung (Wynn)